More than three years have gone by since Bill Gates grinned down upon the Mac faithful and promised to continue releasing new versions of Microsoft Office until at least 2002. No matter how cynically you regard Microsoft's motivations, there's no denying that the company made an excellent start on fulfilling its pledge when it released Office 98 less than a year later. From its drag-and-drop installer to its abundant innovations, Office 98 was a revolutionary, must-have upgrade ( Reviews , June 1998).
Office 98 presented such a dramatic improvement over its abysmal predecessor that another equally compelling upgrade was probably too much to hope for. Not surprisingly, Office 2001 is a more evolutionary release. Still, the suite's three central applications - Word, Excel, and PowerPoint - sport many welcome changes geared toward home and SOHO users. But Entourage - a PIM-enhanced version of Outlook Express, Microsoft's free e-mail client and newsreader - feels more like a work in progress.
Out of the Box
Office 2001 ships in an eye-catching plastic clamshell that contains a CD-ROM but no printed manuals. While Microsoft's commitment to conservation is admirable, new and upgrading users alike will be disappointed to discover that Office has no electronic manual, either. Instead, you have to use the online help system, which feels to us like exploring an intricate cave without a map. (At least the Office help assistant responds appropriately when you ask "What's new?", describing the new features in whatever application you're using.)
The first change you'll see when you fire up Word, Excel, or PowerPoint is the new Project Gallery, a feature designed to help neophytes get started with their projects. The Project Gallery presents a hierarchical list of project categories; select one, and previews of corresponding document templates appear on the right (see "Project Choices"). If you try to open a template for an Office application that's not already running, Office launches it for you. (The Project Gallery appears by default, but you can turn it off if you don't like it.)
Many Office 2001 features aim to provide a more uniform interface for users who routinely jump back and forth between Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. For example, the new Formatting palette, accessible from all three programs, contains tools that change to suit the object you're editing. If you find the palette obtrusive, you can customize Office's Formatting tool bar with the tools you use most often.
Another feature, the Office Clipboard, lets you copy and paste multiple pictures or formatted text clippings from and to Office documents. Although the Office Clipboard is more versatile than the standard Macintosh Clipboard and Scrapbook, there's no way to transfer items to it directly from non-Office applications, even Internet Explorer. And the Clipboard displays text blocks with formatting intact, so the text can sometimes be too small to read (see "Office Pasteboard").
All four Office applications now share Microsoft's Encarta World English Dictionary, which defines both words and simple phrases. However, only Word and Entourage let you view definitions by control-clicking on problem terms; accessing the dictionary from PowerPoint and Excel requires additional typing.
If you're already an Office user, or if you need to share files with someone who uses a Windows PC, you'll be relieved to know that Office 2001 is compatible with Mac Office 98 and Windows Office 2000 files.
A Better Word
The enhancements to Word, Office's flagship application, range from cosmetic to brilliant. Our favorite new feature, Live Word Count, displays a real-time tally of the document's total word count in the status bar, along with the number of words before the insertion point. (If you highlight a block of text, the latter counter changes to show the number of words in the selection.) Although this may seem like a small thing, writers will appreciate being able to keep tabs on their productivity without resorting to the Tools menu.
If you've ever struggled with complex document layouts, you'll love Click And Type, which makes it painless to place text in Page Layout view. To insert a title, for example, you simply point to the middle of the page, double-click, and begin typing - Word inserts extra lines and tabs for you as needed. As you mouse over to the edge or center of the document, the I-beam cursor changes to show whether Click And Type will left-justify, right-justify, or center any new text you type. Word 2001 also lets you edit headers and footers by double-clicking at the top or bottom of the page, another welcome time-saver.
Word 2001's vastly improved table tools let you create tables within tables, and new border styles make it easy to produce tables that look good on the Web. Placing tables is also easier than ever - you can resize and position them by dragging, and text reflows around them as they move.
On the downside, Word 2001 suffers from bugs that range from annoying to nasty. Documents with lengthy tables, for instance, slow Word to a crawl, and printing complex documents isn't as fast as in Word 98. (To Microsoft's credit, representatives of the company's Macintosh Business Unit have responded to early complaints about Office 2001 in online discussion groups and mailing lists.)
Spreadsheets for Everyone
With its grid lines, functions, and formulas, Excel has always been the most intimidating of Office's three core applications. Thankfully, several features in Excel 2001 make the program more accessible to first-time spreadsheet users.
Anyone who uses Excel to maintain home inventories or other simple lists will find a lot to cheer about in this version. If Excel senses that you're typing a list, for example, it offers to convert your data into a list object, complete with clickable column headers that can sort data in ascending or descending order (see "Easy Lists"). The List Manager palette offers convenient access to a suite of tools that simplify formatting and customizing existing lists.
Other new features make it easier to import data from other sources. For example, Excel 2001 lets you open database files created in FileMaker Pro 3.0 and later. Using Excel's FileMaker Import Wizard, you can even select which fields and records to import. Importing information from the Web is also a snap: to transfer a table of financial data, select it in your browser, then drag and drop it onto your spreadsheet.
One change sure to upset veteran Office users is Excel's suite of keyboard shortcuts, which has been remapped to match Word's. For example, command-B, which cleared a cell's contents in Excel 98, now sets the text format to bold. We would be happier if Excel allowed the user to remap or customize any keyboard shortcuts, as Word does.
Many of PowerPoint 2001's improvements boost efficiency. Unlike previous versions, this one lets you display a presentation's outline, notes, and slides in a single tripane window so you won't waste time jumping between views. Frazzled users facing tight deadlines will also be thankful for PowerPoint's new Autofit Text feature, which adjusts line spacing, text, or both to prevent text from running off the edge of a slide.
PowerPoint 2001 also sports improved design tools. For the first time, you can apply a template to any slide in a presentation without affecting the other slides. Support for graphical and autonumbered bullets is another welcome addition, and you can now create tables in PowerPoint without having to import them from Word or Excel.
Beefed-up animation functions, including exit effects and QuickTime-based slide transitions, will please PowerPoint users who rely on electronic presentations. PowerPoint 2001 also lets you save files as QuickTime movies, now Microsoft's preferred format for sharing presentations with anyone who doesn't have PowerPoint. Unfortunately, some presentations don't translate well to the QuickTime format.
We were also disappointed to learn that Microsoft hasn't rectified a text-editing bug that affected PowerPoint 98. When you try to edit white text on a slide with a graphical background, the entire text block turns white, making it impossible to see what you're doing unless you view the presentation in grayscale. And, like the previous version, PowerPoint 2001 is a memory hog: even some modest presentations refused to run until we boosted PowerPoint's RAM allocation to 30MB, and slide shows containing QuickTime movies often demanded more than twice that amount.
Entourage: Rough Edges
For many people, written electronic communication has become such an integral part of their daily routine that a single application combining e-mail, calendar functions, and contact management would be invaluable. Alas, while Entourage is on the right track, it still has a way to go.
Entourage offers all the e-mail functions of Microsoft's excellent Outlook Express ([[R# 45]]; Reviews , March 2000), along with several useful new features. For example, it lets you drag mail folders onto the desktop, where they turn into text files in the MBOX format - a quick-and-dirty way to back up or export messages. If you're already using an e-mail program, Entourage provides one-step importing of messages from Qualcomm's Eudora, Netscape Communicator, and Claris Emailer, as well as Outlook Express.
As a newsreader, however, Entourage is no better than Outlook Express. Along with its other failings, Entourage insists on sorting message threads alphabetically - a prohibitive annoyance for dedicated Usenet jockeys, who want to see newer postings first. If you spend much time reading newsgroups, you'll probably want to stick with your current newsreader.
Entourage's contact manager is the more polished of its two core PIM modules. An overview window shows all your contacts, with column headings that sort the list when you click on them. As an added bonus, the Entourage address book integrates nicely with Word; if you type the first few letters of a name from your contact list in Word, for example, the program offers to fill in the rest of the name for you. The thoughtfully designed contact detail view has five panes for personal data and one summary pane (see "Close Contact"). Surprisingly, Entourage lacks autocompletion and capitalization during data entry.
The calendar is more of a mixed bag. Entourage provides day, week, month, and list views, but they're not as feature-complete as those of competing Mac PIMs. For instance, overdue tasks don't appear in the main calendar window - to see them, you have to open the list view. (They do show up if you click on the Office Reminders control strip module, which you can download from Microsoft's Web site.) And while Entourage lets you sync your calendar with Palm OS organizers, you can't specify a range of dates to synchronize, nor does it support categories from DateBk4, Pimlico Software's popular shareware Palm calendar. Although AppleScript-savvy users can program workarounds for many of Entourage's shortcomings, we'd rather see Microsoft make needed changes to the application itself.
Macworld's Buying Advice
Although you can find alternatives to all the programs in the Office 2001 suite, they won't benefit from the level of integration this package offers. If you're new to Office -- or if you're still limping along with Word 6.0 -- now is as good a time as ever to jump in. (Keep in mind, though, that Microsoft recommends at least a 120MHz PowerPC.) Current Office users face a tougher decision that boils down to economics -- the $299 upgrade cost is just too steep, especially for the home and SOHO users Microsoft claims it wants to please.Project Choices The Project Gallery -- accessible from Word, Excel, or PowerPoint -- lets you choose templates for a wide variety of home and business projects.Office Pasteboard The Office Clipboard offers convenient access to text and graphics, but some formatted text is difficult to read in this view.Easy Lists Pop-up menus in Excel lists make it simple to sort and filter data.Great Panes You can resize PowerPoint's outline, slide, and notes panes by dragging the dividers that separate them.Close ContactIn Entourage's detail view, if the contact has an e-mail address you can compose a message by clicking on the New Message To button.